It was time for Steve Fisher to retire — and he was intelligent enough to see it too

Posted: 04/10/2017 in college basketball
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Steve Fisher has retired as San Diego State basketball coach and it certainly is the right time for his departure.

His final team wasn’t all that good — 19-14 to snap a streak of 11 straight 20-win campaigns — while playing in a Mountain West that was mediocre at best and now firmly entrenched as a one-bid league when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.

Several times this season, I tossed out social media comments that it would be Fab Five Fish’s final season. It just had that feeling about it.

Longtime assistant coach Brian Dutcher — one of the most genuinely nice people in college basketball — takes over the program.

Fisher, 72, went 386-209 in 18 seasons with the Aztecs and posted 12 20-win seasons and led the program to eight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a string of six straight.

Making six straight NCAA Tournament appearances was surreal for a program which was among the worst in the nation when Fisher was hired.

Remember, I was covering that awful program when Fisher was hired and he was far from the preferred target.

I broke the story that then-Utah coach Rick Majerus interviewed for the job and Majerus was close to taking it a few days later before he said no. Fran Fraschilla also was offered the job (nope, I didn’t break that one) as was then-Gonzaga coach Dan Monson (yep, broke that one and was waiting at the airport for his Sunday night flight to arrive and when he didn’t come out of the jet way, I knew that was a problem for San Diego State).

At that point, then-athletic director Rick Bay turned to Fisher, who was desperate to get back into college coaching. He had been fired at Michigan a few years earlier and I still remember how stunned I was upon meeting him that he had gray hair in 1999, just a few years after having a full head of brown hair while coaching the Wolverines.

The Aztecs were putrid in his first season and went 5-23 and then Fisher booted five inherited players off the team to free up scholarships.

Two seasons later, led by junior-college transfer Randy Holcomb, the Aztecs made the NCAA Tournament. Credibility had arrived for a program that previously had none.

Eventually, the 20-win seasons became an annual thing but there was still the matter of the program having ZERO NCAA Tournament wins. And you really don’t have a program if you’ve never won an NCAA Tournament game.

Finally, the Kawhi Leonard-led Aztecs had the best season in program history in 2010-11 with a 34-3 mark — a season that will still be the best in school history in 2117 if the world exists.

San Diego State finally got that elusive NCAA tourney win by beating Northern Colorado and eventually lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Connecticut. The Aztecs also topped 30 wins when they went 31-5 in 2013-14 and again reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Arizona.

If you haven’t figured it out, 30-win seasons aren’t supposed to be accomplishments achieved by the San Diego States of the college basketball landscape.

Last season’s final hurrah was not a good one for Fisher but he certainly elevated the program to heights nobody foresaw. Dutcher has been his right-hand man for all of those 18 seasons so the program philosophy won’t change.

The challenge for Dutcher is to have last season’s subpar campaign be an aberration. Once programs like San Diego State fall back into being just another mid-major program in a poor basketball league, it becomes harder to rise back up. Isn’t that right, UNLV?

But know this: Dutcher steps into a far better situation than the one Fisher inherited. The days where nobody cared that San Diego State even had a basketball program seems like centuries ago.

It was a good run for Steve Fisher but good for him to recognize that it was time for him to depart.

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